A crowded movie theater with booming noises coming from the screen is usually too much for 7-year-old Ariana Evans to handle.
Like many children with autism, the young girl can become overwhelmed by the sensory overload. She may start to chatter and fidget, disturbing others, and she and her family usually end up having to leave.
It's a dilemma for the growing ranks of parents working to help their disabled kids adapt to the real world. They want their children to enjoy the same experiences as others do, yet be able to express themselves naturally, which sometimes may garner stares.
"A parent in this situation may find themselves in a bind as they want their child to be included in community-based activities but also not have their child's behaviors impede on the other children's enjoyment in the activity," said Tom Flis, senior behavior specialist with Sheppard Pratt Health System.
But families are finding more and more programs aimed at kids with developmental disabilities.
The Walters Art Museum has "sensory mornings" held when crowds are light and, unlike the typical hands-off exhibits, there are items kids can touch. The National Aquarium opens 30 minutes early twice a month, letting disabled people skip the line and has a quiet area where parents can take overly excited kids to calm them. There are also sailing, trampoline and indoor rock climbing activities aimed at developmentally disabled kids.
The Evans family took Ariana last week to a special movie night for kids with developmental disabilities at Bengies Drive-In, organized as a fundraiser for The Arc of Maryland, a grass-roots advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring equal rights and opportunities for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
The kids could talk through the movie and repeat lines as much as they wanted. They could sit in their cars with their families, where they feel safer than in the midst of a huge crowd, which might spark anxiety. They could walk around if they became agitated. Ariana sat in the front seat in her dad's lap and ate a red, white and blue popsicle, popcorn and nachos. Younger sister Liliana sat in the seat next to them.
The girls' father, Bill Evans, said the experience was much less stressful and enjoyable then going to a typical movie theater.
"It's hard to take her to the [traditional] theater," Evans said. "This set-up makes it so she still gets to go to the movies."
Nearly 20,000 children in Maryland have some variation of autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 180,000 children and adults, or 3 percent of Maryland's population, have a developmental disability, according to The Arc of Maryland
Between 2000 and 2010, the autism rate soared from 1 in 150 to 1 in 68, according the Autism Society.
As the incidence of autism and other intellectual and developmental disabilities rises, more parents and caregivers want to help these individuals participate in their communities.
Education and outreach are needed to better integrate those with disabilities and make situations better since many people may not understand those diabilities, said Sheppard Pratt's Flis.
For example, Flis suggested parents should talk to those who organize activities in their communities, such as the soccer coach or gymnastics teacher, and see if they would be willing to have a child with special needs join the group. Parents also can offer to do a small educational session before events and talk with the other parents and their children about their child's special needs.
"I think many of these parents would be surprised at how accepting others can be," Flis said.
The group Pathfinders for Autism hosts free family events so that families don't worry about paying for an event then leaving shortly after arriving because their child is overwhelmed.
In addition to the activities, the group also conducts seminars to teach groups how to include people with developmental disabilities in their activities.
"We believe kids with disabilities can be included in any activity given the right support," said Shelly Allred, Pathfinders director of communications.
Jennifer Montgomery of Catonsville used to avoid taking son Nick Leith places that were too noisy or too bright but has ventured out more as he got older. The program at the Walters is a favorite. Before, museums were off-limits.
"To tell him he couldn't touch a painting or sculpture was really hard," Montgomery said. "That didn't always click with him."
In addition to hands-on activities at the Walters' sensory days, therapists come from Kennedy Krieger Institute to work with the kids. Instead of using surround sound for exhibits, the kids can use headphones and the lights are dimmed in many of the rooms. There is also a quiet room with items such as weighted blanket that kids can wrap up in to calm down. They can use bouncy balls to tire themselves out when they become too energetic or to perk up when they become lethargic.
"Many of these are families who are concerned that their child might do something at the museum that isn't ideal," said Ashley Hosler, senior education coordinator of family programs. "We want to make sure they know this is a welcoming space."
Baltimore accountant Nicole Turner said taking son Joshua to programs like that at the Walters helps build overall confidence so that he can participate in all kinds of activities.
The pair go rock climbing, zip lining, and out to restaurants and movies — even if the event is not specifically for those who are developmentally disabled. Turner has learned there are some days Joshua can handle it and some days when he can't.
"I don't go in with the expectation that we will be somewhere for five hours," Turner said. "I go with the expectation that we go for as long as he can handle it."
Even mainstream businesses are picking up on catering to the needs of this population.
AMC Theaters has partnered with the Autism Society to offer "sensory friendly" movie times where they don't dim the lights and play the sound at a lower volume. Kids can roam freely through the theater when they get uptight, parents said.
The theater chain locations in Columbia, Owings Mills and White Marsh participate.
At Bengies in Middle River on Thursday, the families watched "Inside Out," an animated movie about a girl uprooted from her Midwestern life when her father gets a new job in San Francisco. A second movie, the classic "ET," about a friendly alien who finds his way into the life of family, also was shown on the big screen.
The owner of the drive-in said opening for the event was a no-brainer. The theater had a developmentally disabled worker who staffed the beverage stand for more than six years.
"They need to raise funds and I'm here and it's a good fit," said Bengies owner D. Edward Vogel. "Hopefully it will raise interest and awareness."
This was the first year The Arc of Maryland held movie nights at Bengies, but officials said they would like to make it a regular event.
"It keeps families together in an environment where they don't have to be really quiet," said executive director Cristine Marchand. "It is more inclusive and a more forgiving environment."